Monthly Archives: March 2017

Future Unfolding Review

This was the last review I wrote for Brash Games.  They have since removed my name and byline from the review.

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When I play a new game, I typically craft an opinion that doesn’t waiver more than a little bit over the course of my play through. Though not always true, my first impression is usually a decent predictor of my final thoughts. Future Unfolding is a bizarre instance where this is nowhere close to true. When I first started playing it, I thought it was a wonderfully different sort of puzzle experience. Two hours in, and I was bored out of my mind. Another two hours in and I was scratching my head, itching at some idea that I thought must be lurking under the symbols and bits of poetic language the game was throwing at me. Another two hours, and I was again rolling my eyes, frustrated with the repetitive nature of the thing. But now that I’ve spent all the time I need to finish it, I find myself confused, lacking a really good way of summarizing my thoughts and feelings about the experience of playing this strange game.

Play begins with the press a button. Out of thin air you poof into existence, as if this most basic moment of interaction creates the character you play as, with all potential futures at your fingertips. I began in a forest, though given the procedural nature of the game, starting locations are bound to vary. Instantly, the visuals impress. Future Unfolding is a gorgeous take on top-down games. Everything has a mystical, painterly look with plants, animals, rocks, and ponds drenched in vivid watercolor. To match the beauty of the wildlife, the sound effects and music are ambient and natural and give off a mysterious, thoughtful vibe. There is a constant, pretty hum to the world and just about everything you interact with produces a pleasant and fitting musical tone, reminding me of the sound design of other symphonic gardens (see Starseed Pilgrim) that have heavily influenced the indie game world.

As you venture out into dense wooded areas, flowery fields, and rocky bluffs, it’s not immediately apparent what you’re supposed to be doing. Of course, it’s hard to begin a game without the assumption that there is an objective. Exploration (something you’ll do a lot of in Future Unfolding,) even though massively rewarding in its own right, is typically done in the hopes of completing or finding a goal. Indeed, there are some definitive targets at the core of this game, but they’re hidden behind vague puzzles and strange enemies which impede your progress. There is a map for keeping track of your wanderings, and little moments of discovery, in which you are rewarded with some contemplative words or a new, alternatively-colored locale. But for the most part, you’ll be feeling your way through these areas without much of a concrete direction. No one holds your hand, there are no arrows pointing you in the correct direction, just an occasional map marker.

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“Wander” is a good word to summarize most of that you do in Future Unfolding. The better you are at roaming about with an indistinct notion of purpose, the more you will probably get from playing this game all the way through to the end. This sentiment comes through in the odd little pieces of poetry you’ll find as you zigzag through the world. One little quote that stuck with me: “A guess is often more fruitful than an indisputable affirmation. A dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments.” The connection between little ideas like this and the way the mechanics direct you to strange, convoluted conclusions is the most impressive thing I took from the game. The seemingly wishy-washy solutions to puzzles bloom into perfectly sensible answers when you simply let your skeptical mind take a break. There is a very natural feeling to solving these odd little riddles. The indiscrete “interact” button organically does anything you need it to in a way that makes perfect sense for a game that is all about human interaction with wilderness.

Nature is your every enemy and ally in this game. You wreak havoc on this world in search of answers. A theme appears: Human exploration necessitates destruction. If you wish to make your way beyond natural barriers of rocks or trees, you must utilize one of the awesome powers of man. As quick as lightning, blotches of something fierce and inky annihilate the original features of the landscape, paving the way for you to continue your journey. But the world is not devoid of dangers. Nature has more than one way of keeping your destruction at bay. And there are snakes, whirlwinds of deadly leaves, and lion-like creatures awaiting your misstep in many locations around the map. A simple balance emerges between your capacity for destruction and your need to stay hidden from these aggressive forces. Trees and rock features that provide a safe hiding place are knocked over in your quest for more exploration, more discovery, more game. But there are curious and helpful creatures as well. You can befriend sheep and rabbits, sitting down for a moment to get to know them and earn their trust. Fish spread out and collect items you need to carry on with your explorations. Deer allow you to hitch a ride and leap across gaps you would be restricted by alone. Another relevant quote: “The inhabitants of this world have taken note… You are a stranger whom they admire and fear. Explain yourself.”

Future Unfolding has a pervasive atmosphere of contemplation. You character sits in meditation upon discovering new curiosities, provides you a moment to dwell on what you’ve just discovered, and what it may mean. There is a generally mysterious and eerie tone, though as you discover more of what there is to be discovered, an over-arching theme regarding impermanence, death and rebirth can be gleaned. The game’s mechanics revolve around fluidity and uncertainty rather than perfection and hard-stops. Unfortunately, this hazy nature has a few downsides. There is an overwhelming amount of things to do, and for each of these things there is typically one nebulous way to do it. Most of your actions revolve around walking around and getting near objects that then in turn clear a path or otherwise allow you to progress, and this can get a little tedious, or at the very least a bit repetitive. And while I have no complaints about the gorgeous scenery you get to take in while traversing the humongous world, the world is truly humongous. It takes a long time to get from place to place and at times it was difficult to find the drive to carry on.

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Eventually, I realized that these little annoyances either didn’t matter or may have even been somewhat intentional. The game doesn’t worry about you getting stuck in any one spot, because it’s always pretty easy to just move on. If I had not played this game through to the end, I don’t think I would have liked it nearly as much as I did. But sticking with it, I found myself far more appreciative of what it had to offer. And that’s because it really doesn’t offer the same kind of thing as many other games. The puzzles don’t ramp up the longer you play, there isn’t really much of a change of pace in terms of your abilities and skills. You pretty much do the same thing from beginning to end. But as I played it, I stopped trying to figure it out. I just kind of accepted what I was doing and played along. This brought me closer to the place that I now think the game was operating on. A place not too heady and not too base. Something very clean but not grossly polished. Something very thoughtful but not convoluted.

Future Unfolding captures the essence of flow masterfully. You learn things through trial and error, exploration, and guesswork for the most part. Eventually, all these little imperfect ways of learning about the world culminate to a complex understanding of the mechanics of each animal and object. But it is kind of a pain to get to that point. There’s a lot to do, and much of it isn’t very engaging. There’s a lot of wandering, a lot of hypothesis – this is true while searching for entertainment and while searching for a serious, discernible interpretation. And I respect the integrity of the game’s message in how it corresponds to this wandering and searching, but I didn’t have all that much fun as I was doing it. And that’s OK in my mind, because Future Unfolding seems to me to be less about having a good ol’ silly time and more about slow contemplation and gradual comprehension.

N8

R8

7/8

follow n8 @UncleEggma

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Uurnog Review

This was the sixth I wrote for Brash Games.  They have since removed my name and byline from the review.

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Two dimensional puzzle platformers are everywhere. From the seed of “move left and right and figure some stuff out” grows one of the sturdiest and most relied-upon trees in the world of independent games. Google search for a list of indie games and I’ll bet one of the top hits remain a “puzzle platformer” for at least another ten years. When I searched a moment ago, I saw Braid, Limbo, Fez, Spelunky, and The Swapper – all of which are widely-adored independent games with that same basic seed. Besides the obvious fact of the the genre’s popularity within the indie games scene, the fundamental mechanics of your classic platformer allow for virtually infinite creative directions for a developer. Looking at the list above, few would say those games are more similar than they are different. A wealth of great games will always be sitting on the clouds, just waiting for a bright-eyed game dev to figure out the perfect new way to throw a twist on this staple.

This preamble is simply an attempt to frame my thoughts and avoid saying things that are obvious things about the genre when talking about Nicklas (Nifflas) Nygren’s new game Uurnog – an indie puzzle platformer.

After a brief run through a tutorial area, you’re dropped into the Save Room. This room earns its name in two regards. The first is that it’s the place you return to when you die or quit, much in the classic notion of a save room. The second is that everything in the room remains the exact way you left it. This becomes crucial as you work towards the objective displayed prominently within this room. You must find and collect 15 “items” from the wild world and place them on a pedestal. This Save Room also has several doors which spit you out into new areas. Having played the developer’s previous puzzle platformer series, Knytt, I am used to the free form nature of the levels. Nothing beyond the first 10 minutes of the game tells you explicitly where to go next. It doesn’t take long to realize that keeping track of where you’re going and where you’ve been is something that you’ll have to take seriously, or risk getting lost in the sprawling world of Uurnog.

And given all the places to go and things to see in this world, you may find yourself getting lost quite happily. The places, people, objects, and enemies are overwhelmingly charming and warm-spirited, but surprisingly thoughtful and self-reflexive. The NPCs are an interesting example of this. They often act exactly as you might imagine a human player would, though much of the time they simply do what NPCs do. They keep a shop, they walk around town, they have short conversations with each other… But they also go absolutely crazy. I’ve seen the bomb shop owner pick up a bomb from her inventory and blow herself to smithereens, panicking like she forgot which button to press to throw it. I’ve seen two townsfolk hopping around quite happily, only to jump into a death pit one after the other. I’ve had random strangers jumping on my head for no apparent reason, seriously impeding my progress and annoying the hell out of me. There is something so lifelike about the way these little people behave. It makes me wonder how much of this behavior was meticulously designed compared to how much is utterly random.

I also find myself seeing more meaning than there may actually be in the way the game approaches death. It seems to do so in a serious but nonchalant way. There are spooky skulls and grim graveyards on one hand and these hilariously suicidal NPCs on the other. There are some doors that can only be opened by killing something on a sort of sacrificial altar, which is a really grim thing to imagine in such an overtly playful and cheery game. Other sparks of seriousness come from the loose distinctions between item, NPC, and enemy. If I don’t eat anything with a face, this is a land where food is scarce. Many of the items in this game are as full of bizarre, random personalities as the shopkeeper and city-dweller NPCs. Blue blocks are afraid of green blocks. Red blocks are constantly trying to get closer to you, like scared little children. Some blocks will talk to each other in oddly human-sounding voices. The point is, I notice some interesting barrier bending going on in Uurnog. It makes me question the way I use these item-creatures as mere tools, at least a little bit. But that’s not to say I suddenly felt overwhelmingly guilty for throwing the friendly little blue squares into a pot of death. I mean… This does seem to be a game where no one really cares if they live or die. Still, there is something special about games that manage to touch on weighty subjects while staying pleasantly light.

As light as its tone may be, Uurnog is tough as nails. There is a pretty steep learning curve going in, which makes it slow-going rounding up all the items you need. Gradually the game introduced me to new situations, which got me to utilize little tricks that I didn’t even realize I could do. Each new thing I learned about certain items or mechanics boosted my chances of using those little tricks elsewhere.

You’re also able to take the difficult edge of the game by taking advantage of the game’s inventory system, which is a clever combination of your working inventory (four item slots) and your storage inventory (whatever you can fit inside the Save Room.) Anything you can pick up is something that can be brought back and stored in your save house. This is a double-edged sword in many ways, because I found myself drastically overestimating the amount of stuff I needed to store away. I’d often wind up burying many important items under a mountain of gems, monsters, pointless blocks, and bombs. You can also give yourself a bit of a buffer by stashing some gems in your Save Room so you can buy some of the helpful items available at the many shops in town. This is useful since you lose all your money when you die – and death is quite common. Eventually, if you’re persistent and/or clever enough (the game rewards both,) you’ll find yourself turning in that last item triumphantly.

Uurnog is everything I’ve come to expect from Nifflas. Though it’s not as much of an epic as his previous big puzzle platformer, Knytt Underground, it’s still chock-full of good vibes and silliness. I experienced about a dozen amazing, happily unplanned moments that made me burst out laughing, often in exhausted frustration as all my careful plans unraveled hilariously before me. The complicated and ridiculous behavior of NPCs, the liveliness of the ‘items,’ and the amazing algorithmic music all add a distinctive characteristic to the game, which somehow embodies the goofiness and thoughtfulness of the other Nifflas games I’ve sat down with. There is a predominant air of whimsy in Uurnog, but it’s not without the occasional gust of weirdly serious wind.  A perfect addition to the ‘puzzle platformer’ genre.

N8

R8

8/8

follow n8 @UncleEggma

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